Worship My Wreck | The Pale Emperor by Marilyn Manson

Guess who's back: Nostalgia and slick production values rescue Manson from has-been histrionics

Guess who’s back: Nostalgia and slick production values rescue Manson from has-been histrionics

It was a combination of factors: slick marketing campaign that toned down the kitsch in favour of an appealing glacial menace, an evocative title that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Moorcockian post-swords and sorcery romp (and so was fun to think about) and a killer riff on its first single (‘Deep Six’). Whether it was one of these ingredients or a combination of all, I somehow found myself enjoying the latest Marilyn Manson album, The Pale Emperor, again and again.

The last time I dedicated as much time to a release from the former musical enfant terrible was when I was just pupating out of my own youth: Holywood, the final in an unofficial ‘trilogy’ of albums that still defines Manson’s contribution to pop culture: ‘Antichrist Superstar’ and ‘Mechanical Animals’ being the preceding albums… both of which I preferred to Holywood, though Holywood certainly made more of an impression than subsequent releases – the fact that it made an impression at all is already a step up, in fact.

There is something heartening about a former musical idol sort-of emerging from the has-been doldrums to release a decent album, and the fact that The Pale Emperor is not a tacky rehash of former glories while somehow also managing to ride on nostalgic appeal, is what allows it to pass muster, I think.

Despite the archly melodramatic title, Manson isn’t reaching for the same concept-album grandiosity of the ‘trilogy’ here. I’m not equipped to talk about the technicalities of the album’s sound and musical direction, but since Manson has always been conscious about ‘message’ to deliver either counter-cultural slogans or simply for shock value, I will say something about the lyrics.

The album kicks off with a Wildean refrain on ‘Killing Strangers’ – ‘We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones that we love’ – which sets the poetic tone of the rest of it. It all tends towards the facile and it’s cringe-inducing at the best of times, but it’s so polished and earnest that I couldn’t help but find it charming.

Other notable nuggets:

– ‘It’s better to be blamed for robbing Peter than guilty for paying Paul’ (‘Devil Beneath My Feet’)
– ‘You want to know what Zeus said to Narcissus?’/’You better watch yourself’ (‘Deep Six’)
– ‘I feel stoned and alone like a heretic’/’I’m ready to meet my maker’ (‘The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles’)
– ‘Cannot say, I’m breaking the rules’/’If I can glue them back together’ (‘Worship My Wreck’).

What I will say about the sound is that it all comes across as less of a rock stadium courting experience, though one that still packs a punch. ‘Deep Six’, ‘The Devil Beneath My Feet’ and ‘Cupid Carries a Gun’ have a rock-and-roll sense of pure fun about them that’s infectious, and there’s also a rip-roaring appeal to ‘The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles’ and ‘Slave Only Dreams to be King’.

It’s the more vulnerable tracks that feel like innovations in Manson’s repertoire, however, with ‘Worship My Wreck’ and ‘Devil Beneath My Feet’ bolstering their confessional approach with equally ‘exposed’ vocal stylings.

I was introduced to Marilyn Manson during a blistering performance of the now-classic ‘The Beautiful People’ at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. An impressionable 10-year-old me was transfixed by this cross-dressing figure and his equally menacing band, ripping into the big middle finger of a song accompanied by confronting, fascist stage design as the likes of Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs looked on, aghast. He would then become something of a benchmark figure for me, and I’m sure everyone has ‘their own Manson’, whichever side of the generational divide they hail from.

For myself, Manson inculcated an appeal for gender-bending decadence which has stayed with me, and a love for gothic and subversive effects that threads through most things I love. (I never quite latched onto the anti-Christian element since I was raised in an atheist-cum-agnostic household, for better or worse).

Flawed as The Pale Emperor is, it feels good to learn that he can still punch his weight in a contemporary musical landscape. Though this time it feels less of a subversive slap on the face, and more of a welcome visit from an old friend.

Red Right Hand | Hellboy & Crimson Peak

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey in the video for Henry Lee (1996)

Not quite a case of cover versions I prefer to the original, but the recent trailer for Guillermo Del Toro‘s upcoming Crimson Peak (yay!) showed us how Nick Cave’s haunting ditty Red Right Hand is etching itself into the Mexican director’s oeuvre as a musical placeholder, albeit as ventriloquised by different musicians.

A version by Pete Yorn was heard in the original Hellboy (2004), also directed by Del Toro. Something of a logical choice given the subject matter, even if the connection is a shallow one (i.e., limited to the song’s title). Yorn’s jauntier version certainly strips the song of its atmospheric sense of foreboding. Which is just as well in this case, because even though Hellboy – and Del Toro’s films in general – may have its creepy gothic touches, it remains a quirky superhero romp at the end of the day.

PJ Harvey’s version, originally commissioned for another audio visual project – this time the British gangster TV series Peaky Blinders – feels right for gothic melodrama Crimson Peak, at least insofar as the trailer suggests. Harvey’s pained vocals offer a nice contrast to Cave’s hard, stark imagery.

It’s a dynamic that matches my expectations of Crimson Peak itself. It appears to be a ghost story of the Victorian variety and as such, one that would by definition rely on subtle scares, rather than the outre, primary-coloured flourishes Del Toro is known for, and which he doesn’t appear to be shying away from here. I anxiously await to see how the twain will meet – if it does at all – come October.

Messaging

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1570). Source: Wikipedia

“At best, anyway, his ministry had been an odd assortment, attracting hippies and the straitlaced alike, because he’d pulled from the Old Testament and from deism, and the esoteric books available to him in his father’s house. Something his father hadn’t planned on: the bookshelves leading Saul to places the old man would rather he’d never gone. His father’s library had been more liberal than the man himself.

“The shock of going from being the centre of attention to being out of it entirely – that still pulled at Saul at unexpected times. But there had been no drama to his collapsed ministry in the north, no shocking revelation, beyond the way he would be preaching one thing and thinking another, mistaking that conflict, for the longest time, as a manifestation of his guilt for sins both real and imagined. And one awful day he’d realized that he was becoming the message.” – Jeff VanderMeer

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Read previous: HOUSING

Read more about Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy in this month’s edition of Pop Culture Destruction on Schlock Magazine

Getting it Ass-Backwards: ‘Booty’ and the Genre-Mainstream binary at LonCon

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez's single 'Booty'.

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez’s single ‘Booty’.

Considering Iggy Azelea and Jennifer Lopez’s collaborative single ‘Booty’ as a pop single – complete with an accompanying promo video that is arguably more of an ‘event’ than the song itself – is, I think, a fundamental category error.

Taking the aesthetics of both the song lyrics and the video (dir. Hype Williams) into consideration, it becomes clear that what we have here is less to do with music and more to do with pornography.

This isn’t a moral statement, it’s purely a matter of taxonomy, for what it’s worth. When the morally enraged tend to point their guns at supposedly decadent pop culture artifacts, there’s often just enough ambiguity in the equation for them to come across as uptight fuddy-duddies to their opponents.

But it is difficult to make a claim for ambiguity when a song calls itself ‘Booty’ – thereby making it clear that its priorities are purely limited to amplifying the erotic appeal of the bodily feature in question. Though it could also be seen as a collaborative attempt to dethrone Nicky Minaj from booty-pop dominance, the Azelea/J-Lo duet is also something of no-brainer considering both singers have put their backsides as the forefront of their brand.

Their effort is also significantly different in degree to Destiny Child’s now-classic ‘Bootylicious’. Where Azelea/J-Lo repeatedly and aggressively thrust their sculpted backsides to the camera in an attempt to entrance us with their particular anatomical prowess, Beyonce and co. go anthemic: the song understandably became a rallying call for amply-bottomed women to celebrate their bodies. While DC don’t of course deny the intrinsic erotic value of her subject, ‘Bootylicious’ emphasizes a feel-good factor, calling on listeners to cultivate confidence in their bodies.

But as they participate in what is essentially a Booty Dream Team, Azelea/J-Lo, like good capitalists, collaborate purely to maximize their own assets (!), and empowerment for the big bootied masses is clearly not on their agenda (‘Prepare Audience For Maximum Impact’, an opening scroll teases in the song’s promo video).

It’s Booty Degree Zero, and can therefore be seen as nothing more than pornography – a fetishisation of the flesh bolstered by pinprick-precise brand management that has the advantage of a far larger budget than other productions we would be less ambivalent about filing under ‘Porn’.

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The issue of taxonomy appears to be a consistent bugbear in some of my most frequented cultural circles: namely, the field of literature, particularly the strands of what can broadly be termed genre fiction when offset against what – again, with a disappointing short-hand – can be termed ‘mainstream’ literature.

It was a distinction – one with any number of attendant polemics – that appeared once again as a consistent theme during my visit to LonCon (or WorldCon) – a predominantly science-fiction based convention that took place in London in mid-August.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Amid a rich variety of panels – it would have been physically impossible to attend enough of them to get a representative sample – I was disappointed to find that a victim mentality still reigns supreme among certain elements of the science fiction and fantasy community.

I think this reduces our – ultimately quite human and universal – need to clarify and classify into its least productive mode.

While a discussion entitled ‘When is a fantasy not a fantasy’ did yield to some cogent and perceptive observations about the ways we tend to process fantastical works of fiction, it all unfortunately returned to a rather depressing cul-de-sac: that what we’re discussing here remains the purview of dedicated fans, whose passion the ‘mainstream’ world will never understand.

This, despite the fact that “Death to binaries!” ended up being an impromptu slogan of the panel, which included among its ranks Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Strahan, Paul Kincaid, Graham Sleight and Greer Gilman (it was moderated by Miriam Weinberg).

'The Wasp Factory' at the LonCon Dealer's Room - an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

‘The Wasp Factory’ at the LonCon Dealer’s Room – an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

Valente, a writer whom I greatly admire for her effusive baroque sensibility and her inspired weaving of myths and folktales into contemporary and often erotically charged narratives, disappointed me by assuming a boringly predictable stance towards ‘the mainstream’.

Though it was buttressed by an interesting central point – that people who aren’t all that familiar with fantasy literature are actually more comfortable with reading ‘straight’ fantasy than any slipstream variation that mixes various narrative registers – Valente dismissively waved away “Booker Prize books or whatever” as if they’re a homogenous, over-privileged bunch that deserve our derision by default.

The old chestnut that mainstream writers use “genre ingredients” with less rigour than genre writers, often levelled at the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, was trotted out once again, with Valente observing that this amounts to “playing with a shiny new toy without reading the instruction manual”. These writers use genre elements as “just a manner, a flash of colour”, favouring emotional impact at the cost of cogent, convincing world-building.

But I would argue that these writers are to be commended for accomplishing their narrative goals without having to worry about finicky world-building details. A writer is, among other things, an illusionist: they are supposed to convince you to plunge into the world they’ve created, and they shouldn’t be “shamed” if they succeed in doing so in a way that you don’t like.

This isn’t to say that categories of literature shouldn’t exist. Beyond commercial considerations – i.e., in which section of the bookshelves you’re expected to stuff certain books in, and how you want to ‘target’ your marketing – I still maintain that it’s useful to discuss how boundaries reflect on our reading experience and expectations.

It’s a factor that the above-mentioned panel did in fact grapple with, which makes the overall notes of victimization all the more deflating.

Paul Kincaid rightly complained that “fantasy is the wooliest word in the English language” – an apt opening salvo for a discussion which then sought to edge out some particulars about this all-embracing genre, or more specifically, our perceptions of it.

While Jonathan Strahan pointed out that certain books are “demonstrably” works of fantasy – the kind of books you wouldn’t hesitate to slide into the Fantasy shelf in bookstores – and that cover illustrations can in fact powerfully calibrate our expectations of the text, almost to the point where the text is altered completely (there goes branding again), this strand of thinking also accommodated a richer part of the discussion: that it is ultimately only the reader who can define a genre.

This is where art triumphs over pornography, I think.

Pornography is not narrative. Pornography is not interested in stories. It is uni-directional: Set phasers to ‘Arouse’. Storytelling allows for ambiguity, but the best stories take advantage of established boundaries – even when they aggressively run counter to them – to maximize the effects of stories.

LonCon/BarCon - alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

LonCon/BarCon – alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

To obsess over a perceived, looming bogeyman called ‘The Mainstream’ is to miss the wood for the trees. Let’s focus our attentions instead on what the literary traditions we want to work in have left us. If it was anything, LonCon was a celebration of the kind of communal fellow-feeling that creating distinctions in the first place can create. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that these distinctions can exist to give us a starting point: to add texture to our work and our discussions.

Otherwise we risk of them turning into something they turn into all too often: marks of segregation and exclusion.

High & Low | Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Reviews – Part 2

Southern-Fried Patti Smith: Christeene

Southern-Fried Patti Smith: Christeene

Click here for Part 1

AUGUST 2 – 22:10 – CHRISTEENE: The Christeene Machine

Southern-Fried Patti Smith in drag, with a dash of acid on a bed of sleaze.

Down in the Cowgate’s smoky Underbelly venue, the audience was being assaulted by a different kind of projectile fluid (see Part 1): a suspect jet of what we can only hope was water, emanating from Austin, Texas-based drag performer Christeene’s faux-vagina.

This prop pretty much sums up the concert-cum-cabaret act: unapologetically irreverent and often gross, but with an impish childishness that makes it quite endearing at the same time.

With songs like ‘Fix My Dick’ and ‘Tears from my Pussy’ (the latter – surprise surprise – being the number that gave way to the aforementioned projectile genitalia), Christeene’s schtick is far from subtle. But coupled with the performer’s Austin Texas pedigree, the between-the-songs banter is what makes the experience truly worthwhile.

As a stage presence she is both creepy and coddling. The mismatched pupils and blacked-out teeth are suggestive of an unsavory alleyway encounter, but Christeene milks this unsettling character to entertain rather than disturb.

Playing the dazed American visitor – one from the Deep South, no less – Christeene describes Edinburgh as being “like Disneyland… only with no creepy mouse comin’ up to ya and shit”.

“There be castles, fireworks and men in skirts playin’ music outta a sack… where the fuck am I?!”

But beyond the expletive-ridden drag-hillbilly facade there’s a genuinely romantic core to Christeene’s act, if you can believe it.

Accompanied by her two trusty dancers C-Baby and T-Gavel (refreshingly against-type, they’re not shy to let some flab hang out), that the Christeene Machine is all about losing your inhibitions should come as no surprise. But Christeene is also on a mission to liberate us from the deadening structures that crush our individuality and invade on our intimate private space.

Noting how ridiculous we’d all look tapping away at our smartphones – which we’re all “slaves” to – while also negotiating Edinburgh’s often-cobbled streets, Christeene implores the audience to safeguard that “little pony inside of you”, and to not let it be harvested by the relentless and numbing churn of the zeitgeist.

It’s not too dissimilar from the right-on live performance preaching from the likes of Patti Smith (whom I was also lucky enough to catch – on my adoptive home island, no less – earlier this year). Except that thankfully, Christeene does away Smith’s brand of post-hippie pseudo-spirituality in favour of an (un)healthy dose of Southern-Fried sleaze.

AUGUST 3 – 15:30 – Simon Callow in Juvenalia

Simon Callow in Juvenalia

A politically incorrect diatribe that grasps at topical relevance, but still boasts a melancholy core if you’re patient enough to look for it.

It is a testament to the healthy variety one can find at the Fringe (if, that is, you do in fact manage to machete your way through the stand-up comedy) that you can quite literally descend into an underworld to experience an act like Christeene on one day, and then head back up the next to watch a National Treasure (™) like Simon Callow channel an ancient Roman satirist.

That’s not to say that Juvenalia, a revival of Callow’s own 1970s take on Juvenal’s Satires, puts much stock in pomp and ceremony.

Working off translation by Peter Green (as adapted by Richard Quick), the show pitches the condensed and cherry-picked selection of Juvenal’s vitriolic rants against… well, pretty much anyone and anything… as nothing other than a stand-up comedy show (the show’s poster tagline spells it out for you: ‘Stand-Up Comedy as last delivered in AD 100’).

That particular gimmick may not have been the wisest. While taking the form of a sustained monologue, much in the same way as your run-of-the-mill stand-up comedy show would – Callow’s subject is not an easy pill to swallow, and the claims of Juvenal’s contemporary relevance are strained at best.

The fact is that the Roman satirist, while acerbically entertaining, remains a product of his time. That he is ‘democratic’ in his vitriol – virtually no class of citizen or ruler is spared from his acid tongue – cannot conceal the unpleasant prejudices that power his most sustained rants.

Juvenal’s misogyny is particularly hard to root for, and the production does nothing to contextualise it in a way that would make it palatable.

But though Juvenalia is sold to us as a stand-up comedy show that happens to be delivered from beyond the grave by a long-dead historical figure, it’s saving grace is in how it differs from other exponents of the genre it’s trying to ape.

By the end of the performance, you realize that, far from being a meandering monologue, Juvenalia allows for a change of pace.

Come the final act, we’re allowed a peek into a weary Juvenal; anger takes a back seat to reveal what’s at the core of his philosophy: a call for virtue in simplicity.

Though the show doesn’t do itself any favours by trying to compete with the myriad stand-up comedy events at the Fringe, the negative backlash it’s received feels slightly disproportionate.

Rather than a still-topical piece of mordant satire, Juvenal stands on its own as an intriguing character study – a sustained ‘unpeeling’ of a bitter man which at the end allows us to see the pain within.

Though Callow delivers his lines with gusto, judging by the marketing campaign and general pitch of the show, it seems as if he may be blind to the show’s true strength… even after all these years.

Next time: SCANDIMANIA! IZZARD! 

Homing

Samwise Gamgee returns to the Shire, in the final scene of Return of the King (2003)

Samwise Gamgee returns to the Shire, in the final scene of Return of the King (2003)

“There is no safe place from the injuries of history; home as a place or a time of innocence can only be an illusion. But the poet doesn’t recover the bitter past to serve present grudges – his acts of remembering, his quest for identity are grounded in generosity.

“And from this sense of loss and recovery, this mix and merging, this reckoning with the complexities of the past, present national identity and patterns of belonging can be fruitfully formed. The way Walcott has worked the material of his complicated memories and inheritance in the Caribbean represents an exemplary openness to making a new model of the homeland, which doesn’t exclude, but rather includes, which doesn’t justify, but seeks to understand. No home is an island; no homegrown culture can thrive in permanent quarantine. We’re all wayfarers and we make our destinations as we go.” – Marina Warner

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Read previous: EXPLODING

Read related: Virtual Borders, Virtual Wars

Rapping

Dizzee Rascal performs at the Isle of MTV 2014 concert at the Granaries, Floriana, Malta. Photo by Ray Attard/Mediatoday

Dizzee Rascal performs at the Isle of MTV 2014 concert at the Granaries, Floriana, Malta. Photo by Ray Attard/Mediatoday

“I’m attracted to the idea that trickster narratives appear where mythic thought seeks to mediate oppositions. Just as Raven eating carrion stands between herbivore and carnivore (or, in my own earlier version, just as Raven stealing bait stands between predator and prey), so there is a category of mythic narrative, a category of art, that occupies the field between polarities and by that articulates them, simultaneously marking and bridging their differences. It is the tale in which Coyote tries to retrieve his wife from the land of the dead but creates death as we know it, Coyote does go to the underworld and so overcomes the barrier between life and death, but at the same time his impulses overcome him and the barrier remains.” – Lewis Hyde

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Covering the annual Isle of MTV festival is one of the great, regular Calvaries of my existence as a journalist. Or rather, the pre-show press conference itself: you couldn’t pay me enough to attend the free-of-charge crush of sweaty (largely foreign) teenage bodies – the Granaries in Floriana rearing to crack under their weight – and all the while, the otherwise proud St Publius Church gazes on.

Being filed into the pool area of a five-star hotel: the international press primped, young and eager, at the ready with tabloid-friendly questions to fire off; the local media hot, bothered and blase, tired of hearing just how “beautiful, historical” Malta is, how “friendly” its locals are, and, apparently, how awesome the fish is.

But East London rapper Dizzee Rascal was something of a refreshing presence in this year’s otherwise stale and repetitive churn of pre-prepared, mealy-mouthed sound-bites.

Asked (by the chipper, elfin-faced and Irish-inflected MTV VJ Laura Whitmore) about what he thinks of the Isle of MTV image as a production, he replied: “Well MTV’s got the money, innit?”

Asked (just like his Isle of MTV colleagues were) about how he’ll handle the oppressive heat on stage, he replied: “I mean it’s only a 20-minute set, really, we’ll be okay.”

Asked (by an equally chipper local radio journalist) whether performing at Glastonbury was the highlight of his career so far, he replied: “I don’t know… I actually think the proudest moment of my career so far is being able to buy my mum a house.”

Cue applause.

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Read previous: MONSTERING

LISTEN | Fastidju & Mongaliech

Mongaliech

I especially like my music dark and immersive – I find it perfect to write to, for one thing, and my social network has been very generous on that front this particular month of May (hey, it is my birthday month after all), as two friends of mine – one from this here isle, the other from one further up north in Scotland – both unveiled their dark, twisted projects to the world, and I found them both a joy to listen to.

First out of the gate is Fastidju, the brainchild of Nigel Baldacchino who, together with a veritable ‘super-band’ of local talent, has released a double-CD album of haunting, burrowing (and bi-lingual) sounds. It all comes gorgeously packaged too. Check out a track below, and click here to go to the band’s Facebook page, where you’ll find info about how to acquire a copy of the album.

Next is MONGALIECH – a two-man-band release brought to my attention by horror writer Alistair Rennie, one half of this heady initiative. It’s a dramatic soundscape that clearly evokes the duo’s Scottish environs, and will be of particular interest to those who like a bit of horror, in whichever form. Their entire album is available to listen to and download for free from bandcamp. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.